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Heatsick recommends the Whole Earth Catalog: California and the Disappearance of the Outside

Heatsick, aka Steven Warwick, is a British musician and visual artist based in Berlin. His work encompasses technology, hybridization, performance, sculpture and film. Here he recommends the current Whole Earth Exhibition and Catalog at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt, taken from our new Summer, 2013 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine


The current Whole Earth exhibition in Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt and its accompanying catalogue is a massive curatorial and conceptual undertaking, telling the story of how hippie libertarianism provided foundation of neoliberalism as we know it today. It’s a complex and multifaceted narrative put together by critic-curators Diedrich Diederichsen and Anselm Franke, and one which is wide open to numerous interpretations. This is mine.

Let’s start from the beginning: The Whole Earth Catalog was initiated by Stewart Brand, a man who seemed to always be in the right place at the right time. Prefiguring the internet, Brand’s catalogue was launched in 1968 as a visualization of the cybernetic systems reconfiguring the collective mindset. It offered tools, tips and products for those interested in recreational drug use, developing the communal living ideas of Buckminster Fuller, or individual self-realization. The “Californian Ideology,” as it came to be known, roughly views the body/mind as a computer that can be re-adapted and re-booted via organic food, yoga, global consciousness and expanding upon lifestyle ideals that had emerged from the late fifties onwards. This is the exhibition’s conceptual starting point and an extremely important one at that—especially in light of the often flattering valuation of America’s countercultural past, both within the art world and the context of cultural history.

Brand’s catalogue, emblazoned with the NASA image of the Earth as seen from space, invited humanity to view the world as a unified global network, relying upon ever increasing interconnectivity and self-regulation via feedback systems. After World War II, cyberneticians such as Norbert Wiener searched for similiarities in nature and in human cognitive processes, suggesting a connection between all things following a program. The modeling of various processes was then fed into computers for data collection to forecast trends and to analyze data. Humans were machines, and, in a sense, we’re all one collective organism bound by networks which could be controlled and regulated by a technocratic society. Interestingly, shortly following the appearance of Whole Earth, the gold standard was abandoned by the U.S. government, exposing currency and market value as purely speculative and the Chicago School of neoliberal economic policy began to emerge. This supported an economic, sociological, ethical and cultural vision where politics disappeared from society, replaced by self-made men and women eating organic food, exercising regularly and operating within a powerful market economy. Communes were founded, people were encouraged to get in touch with their emotions and to be at one with nature. Anti-psychologists such as R. D. Laing or the Viennese Actionists demanded people scream away societal constraints, while Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters suggested a cognitive reprogramming of the senses via LSD.

It’s no surprise that Whole Earth was beloved and quoted from by Steve Jobs, and Taoism would become part of the neoliberal furniture. After all, flexibility encourages precarity and interconnectivity begets surveillance. Facebook  and other social networking sites were predicted as far back as 1985, in which data collectors would forecast a time when citizens would willingly submit data about themselves in order to seem to be participating conceptually in, well, the whole earth. This strand of thought, particularly well depicted in the exhibition, reminded me of an anecdote by philosopher Slavoj Zizek about the annual “Masturbate-a-thon” in San Francisco, in which he describes masturbating together as the “Californian Ideology” stripped bare: people supposedly share an experience, but in reality they just assert their own selfish goals with no regard to the person in front of them. They’re cumming together, seperately—if only not to feel alone in their solipsism.

Diedrichsen and Franke convincingly argue that Brand and company never really stood in opposition to capitalism, despite all their talk of counter-culture. Instead, as the exhibition and catalogue show, Brand honed a form of libertarianism that would seemlessly integrate itself into capitalism as technocratic doctrine. This view was compounded by a recent Guardian feature on the Whole Earth and Stewart Brand. I was alarmed by the utter lack of political discussion, which struck me as a rather false view of liberation. And to what end? The far more critical Whole Earth exhibit serves an important function in exposing the various strands of “California Ideology” by parsing out what they spawned—humorously summed up by the inclusion of a scene from 1984’s The Karate Kid, in which Ralph Macchio learns to enter Zen-like contemplation whilst carrying out the most mundane domestic tasks for his teacher. ~

This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 34 (2, 2013). Read the full issue on or in the embed below.

Published July 01, 2013. Words by heatsick.